The leaders of Israel’s coalition government decided on Monday to dissolve the Knesset and hold early elections in April, nearly eight months earlier than required by law.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition governs with a razor-thin majority, and has been struggling to pass a new bill that would extend the military draft to ultra-Orthodox Jewish students.
At a press conference at the Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu confirmed “the heads of the coalition parties decided, in agreement and unanimously, to disperse the Knesset and call for new elections at the beginning of April.”
The speaker of the Knesset, Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, announced the elections would be held on April 9.
Government battling difficulties
Netanyahu’s government has been battling difficulties on several fronts. A military confrontation with Palestinian militants last month followed a botched Israeli operation in Gaza that killed one of its soldiers. Seven Palestinians, including a senior Hamas military commander, also died.
An eventual ceasefire prompted the resignation of the then defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, who denounced it as a “capitulation to terror.”
The resignation of Liberman, the hardline leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, left the government with 61 seats – a majority of only one seat – in the 120-seat Knesset
That narrow majority made it difficult to implement a ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice last September concerning a 2015 law that grants most yeshiva students exemption from conscription. The court ordered lawmakers to issue new guidelines for the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Netanyahu would need every member of his coalition to pass a controversial bill that extends the military draft to comply with the ruling. Ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu’s coalition vehemently reject the bill, leading to a crisis within his government.
The political turbulence comes against the backdrop of criminal investigations that have hit Netanyahu and his inner circle. Israeli police say there is enough evidence to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate investigations. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing: “I believe nothing will come of it because there is nothing in it,” he said earlier this month.
‘Sigh of relief’
On Monday opposition member Shelly Yachimovich of the Zionist Union said news of an early election produced a “sigh of relief.”
“It is impossible to continue with a government whose Prime Minister is under recommendation of indictments of the state attorneys and the police for fraud,” Yachimovich said.
“We can’t continue with the collapsing diplomatic position. We have a whole government that is held hostage to the personal needs of the Prime minister and can’t operate in this way.”
Netanyahu is currently in his fourth term as Prime Minister. A national election was required under Israeli law to be held by November 2019.
Michael Schwartz reported from Jerusalem. Bianca Britton wrote from London. Ian Lee contributed reporting.